Former Toronto Star intern sparks newspaper war in Squamish, B.C

Gagandeep Ghuman, founder of The Squamish Reporter, at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference in Ottawa, May 2011

His family in India wanted Gagandeep Ghuman to be an engineer or a diplomat. But armed with a journalism degree from Toronto, a masters in English from India, and several years writing at the Toronto Star, the Guelph Mercury, freelancing in Vancouver, and working for the Squamish Chief newspaper in B.C, the young entrepreneur is taking on his former employer in his adopted West Coast community with his own weekly paper, The Squamish Reporter.

Ghuman was at my table Saturday night at the Canadian Association of Journalists annual conference in Ottawa. He had been nominated for one of the top investigative journalism awards. His story about the controversial state of Squamish’s fire department after six homes burned down earned him a spot on the shortlist for the award. Read it here:
He didn’t win, but he says his aim was to gain some buzz about his paper among the CAJ members and panelists.
Because money is tight, and advertisers and the district give most of their dollars to the Chief, which has been around for two decades, Ghuman says he spends two days a week driving a cab to help defray expenses of putting out his weekly, and maintaining his online site.  Come to think of it, driving a cab is probably a great way to get story ideas! 

Ghuman probably isn’t all that popular these days in the newsroom of the district’s rival paper. In 2009, he worked as a reporter at the Squamish Chief, before going freelance. Now his own paper is coming out and competing with the Chief every Friday in the community of 15,000 people, an hour north of Vancouver on the Sea-to-Sky highway. He emails each new edition every Friday to 1,800 people.

He’s planning to revamp the website, and is thinking about adding an online donation box, to help cover costs. And he’s musing about enticing an intern to come work there, with the offer of groceries and a place to stay. He’s also assembling an editorial board that includes a BBC reporter, and journalism professors and academics (full dislosure: not me.)

One sign that Ghuman is becoming a respected member of the media in Squamish? He was recently featured as a panelist –along with folks from the Chief and from the Garibaldi Times, another local news site that seems to have stopped updating its website –  at Quest University’s May 8, 2011 philosopher’s cafe on the topic of civility and censorship in the blogosphere. 

Censorship is something Ghuman knows a lot about, now.  His September 2010 story about the Squamish Fire department prompted the threat of a lawsuit from the town’s chief administrative officer if he didn’t retract his story and tell them who the whistleblower was who leaked the internal document about the fire department.  He didn’t back down. Read his reply here.

The story has made an impact on Squamish. It prompted the municipality to make major changes in order to make the community safer, with more appropriate levels of fire protection. See story here.

I say: good for you, Gagandeep, and good luck to you.  Most journalism students prefer to stay close to home, for financial reasons, as well as family and personal reasons. We professors and news industry veterans always suggest that journalism students go to a smaller news outlet in a small community for their first jobs, where they can learn about a new part of Canada, cover issues they haven’t faced before, learn about themselves, and build a portfolio. Be a big fish in a small pond. And become more experienced and make mistakes far away from the hiring managers in Toronto, if that’s where they want to end up, eventually. 

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